The federal government has agreed to test new "groundbreaking" technology to capture and destroy tank vapors, and install vapor monitoring to increase safety measures. Hanford, located in southeastern Washington, is the most seriously polluted nuclear site in North America.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Wednesday announced a settlement agreement with the federal government that is designed to keep workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation safe from exposure to harmful chemical vapors and fumes that have concerned workers for decades.
The agreement puts on hold a three-year-old lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, which was scheduled to go to trial next June.
Ferguson, who described a “culture of indifference to worker safety” at Hanford, said the deal could represent a turning point for workers at Hanford’s tank farms, where advocates say hundreds have been exposed to leaking vapors for decades. Some of the chemicals found in vapor include ammonia, nitrous oxide and dimethyl mercury, according to court documents.
“We’re finally moving towards a lasting solution,” Ferguson said, adding that the federal government had failed workers for years. “We should not have had to file a lawsuit. It shouldn’t have come to this.”
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Yvonne Levardi, a Department of Energy spokeswoman for its Hanford office, said the agency was pleased with the agreement.
“We’ve acknowledged there is still room for us to continue to improve,” she said. The energy department’s priority, she said, was to work together with the contractor to “make sure the workers are safe and comfortable with the safety measures in place.”
Abe Garza, an instrument technician who retired in 2016 after working for 34 years at Hanford in southeastern Washington, said he developed heart, lung and kidney problems after inhaling vapors there. He said he hoped the agreement would prevent other workers from having the health problems he attributes to working at Hanford.
“It’s time the Department of Energy faced up to the fact people are getting sick, instead of trying to deny it,” Garza said, his voice raspy, he noted, from the effects of the chemicals.
Garza said he was optimistic the agreement would protect workers, but it was a feeling tempered by what he said was years of government inaction.
“Time will tell how good it is,” he said. “I don’t trust them.”
The agreement requires the federal government to test new technology to capture and destroy tank vapors; install vapor monitoring, detecting and an alarm system; maintain safety measures put in place since the lawsuit; improve sharing of information regarding worker protections, health monitoring and medical surveillance; and pay Washington state and advocacy organization Hanford Challenge $925,000 to reimburse for costs and fees related to the lawsuit.
Ferguson called the new technology “game-changing.” The new system employs a catalytic converter, burns off volatile organic compounds and then uses a carbon filter to remove pollutants. Under the agreement, the Department of Energy would be required to implement the system if testing goes well.
The 177 tanks, of which more than a third have leaked, contain 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical wastes that were byproducts of Hanford’s decades-long production of plutonium for weapons at a 586-square mile federal site by the Columbia River.
As part of a cleanup effort, Hanford workers have been pumping waste from single-wall to double-wall tanks, which are believed to be safer. But vapors from some tanks have escaped both types of vessels.
Advocates have spent decades documenting concerns over tank vapors, said Tom Carpenter, the executive director of Hanford Challenge, whose organization was a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“The issue of vapor exposures first came to our attention in the early ’90s because of whistleblowers who came to us from the Department of Energy,” Carpenter said.
When the lawsuit was filed in 2015, Ferguson cited several studies over a 20-year period that examined the problems of hundreds of workers sickened from toxic gases that escaped from the tanks. Their symptoms have included nosebleeds, headaches and difficulty breathing, and some have suffered long-term disabilities that include damaged lungs, according to a statement that Ferguson released when the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Spokane.
The lawsuit requested that the Energy Department be ordered to “take all actions necessary” to eliminate endangerment from the vapor releases, including adding independent oversight. It also requested personal protective equipment that would be sufficient to safeguard workers and others who might be exposed to the fumes.
The exposures continued after the lawsuit was filed, with more than 50 tank-farm workers sickened in early 2016, according to a court filing that year by Ferguson’s office.
The agreement does not bring an end to the legal action, which remains on hold.
“If I’m not satisfied with how this is going, we can go back to court,” Ferguson said.
The environmental cleanup at Hanford has been going on for more than a quarter century. The nuclear site produced most of the nation’s plutonium during World War II and the Cold War. It had five facilities that processed 110,000 tons of fuel from reactors.
The Energy Department is building an expensive and complex plant to treat Hanford’s wastes. The plant has gone through numerous delays and cost increases and is expected to cost about $17 billion.
The plant is designed to turn the wastes into a more stable form for long-term storage through a process called vitrification, which transforms it into a molten-material that can be poured into stainless-steel canisters.
During the decades of cleanup, some 800 facilities have been demolished, 16 million tons of contaminated soil and debris has been removed and some 15 billion gallons of water have been treated, according to the Energy Department.
There have been setbacks.
They include a May 2017 partial collapse of a tunnel where radioactive waste was stored. This triggered a shelter-in-place order, although there was no indication of a radioactive release. There remains concerns that another tunnel could suffer a collapse.
In December, an effort to demolish a plutonium-finishing plant was shut down after a second round of worker exposures to radioactive particles. Test results indicated that 42 workers had inhaled or ingested very low amounts of contamination.
The Energy Department has authorized a contractor to “resume lower risk demolition activities” at the site, according to a recent update by the Richland Operations office. Another assessment and agency-regulatory approvals would be required to resume higher-risk work, including taking down two processing lines.